Hult Visionary: Paul Polman

Paul Polman

Above picture shows Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever since 2009. He was Forbes Person of the Year in 2011 and is widely accredited with putting vigour back into a company that was slowly falling behind on its competitors. Unilever’s share price rose 50% during Polman’s tenure, which ends this year. He has put strong emphasis on sustainability, trying to drastically reduce Unilever’s ecological footprint while setting an example for other companies. Yesterday, Mr. Polman imparted his wisdom on the Hult students as a speaker in the Hult Visionary Speaker Series, which has already seen visionary leaders such as Bill Clinton, Bob Geldof, Steve Forbes and Steve Wozniak (to name a few).

The lecture was very inspiring. Polman talked about how Unilever can use its power, as one of the largest corporations in the world, to provide a step towards solving the largest contemporary problems. Here are four points that Polman elaborated on:

1. Climate change and sustainability

There is no denying that the climate is drastically changing. The Earth is getting warmer, sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting, and extreme weather events such as hurricanes and floods are happening significantly more often. The climate is highly disrupted and scientists have agreed that the warming of the Earth is 95% likely to be caused by us. This has implications for businesses around the world, as the cost of these disruptive events is rising. Polman argued that the cost of inaction is slowly rising above the cost of acting, which would give businesses an economic incentive to operate sustainably, sadly enough a much stronger incentive than a moral incentive. Polman said that critics of the human influence in climate change are slowly disappearing as well, and that the importance of sustainability finally seems to seep through to the businesses. As for Unilever, climate change cost the company $300 million in 2013, quite an eye-opener to the cost of climate change. Polman also wants every product of Unilever to have a valuable purpose. Dove is an excellent example of how this is put into practice, as following ad shows:

In a world dominated by unrealistic beauty ideals, Dove focuses on female self-esteem. It uses real models and campaigns for improving one’s self esteem. This is very well portrayed in above advertisment. Note that its only focus is on female self-esteem, and it hardly advertises Dove. However, as of now, Dove is one of Unilever’s strongest-growing brands. This is proof (to an extent) that the customer connects with its message.

2. The power of business

Polman believes businesses are much stronger entities in leading change (i.e. leading the sustainability movement) than governments are. In an increasingly global world, a multi-national business crosses borders where a government does not. Even when countries come together to work on a global issue, change is too slow and rigid. Trade negotiations such as the Doha Development Round fail for a reason. Countries have interests that differ; and a democratic system for challenges that require a unified fist simply does not cut it. A business propelled by a visionary leader has a much stronger and faster impact these modern days. I could not agree more. Future lies not in the hands of politics; it lies in the hands of those driven by a global purpose.

3. Women

Polman believes much of the future lies in women’s hands as well. He is proactive in making women an active part of Unilever’s business. For example, the company aims for a gender-balanced management by 2015. More and more women are entering the workforce, but they often still need to fight against untrue prejudices and biased views. How can the Middle East ever fulfill its true economic potential when only half of its population works? Women are more emphatic, have stronger moral values and care more for others. I could not agree more, and loyal readers might know I have written about this before. Men need to mirror themselves to women, and acknowledge that they need to and will play a much larger part in shaping the world, for the greater good of the planet.

4. The dilution of power and the moral duty of the 1%

In recent years, “the people” have gained a tremendous amount of power through social media (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube). The Arab Spring, for example, gained momentum because of this unstoppable force. However, inequality is drastically on the rise, with more and more wealth concentrated in the hands of a select few; the 1% of the population, the one percent that owns half of the world’s wealth. Polman said the 85 wealthiest people now have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion (yes, 3 500 000 000 persons). Inequality is not necessarily something bad, as capitalism needs it, but there is a limit to inequality, and that limit has been crossed. While the rich waste food, the poor die of hunger. While a Bangladeshi worker receives $0.09 per hour, we pay $3.25 for a Grande Chai Tea Latte in Starbucks. This is where the moral duty of the privileged comes in (including me). Those with the financial freedom, those with the means, should act towards a more equal world, towards the bettership of those that die from hunger, those that suffer from disease, those that are discriminated. The privileged should live on a smaller ecological footprint, and should lead businesses towards sustainability.

Paul Polman delivered an enlightening and inspiring lecture during which I often found myself nodding in agreement. I am extremely grateful that I have been given the opportunity to listen to him, and would like to thank Hult for this opportunity. So much is at stake in the future. Yet that makes  it all the more challenging, and worth living for.

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